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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 49.djvu/566

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POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

In declaring that in former times hysteria was but of sporadic occurrence and attained no importance for the life of society as a whole, Nordau falls into a grave error. Mental diseases, and especially hysteria, have, from the earliest times to the present, exercised a tremendous influence upon the current metaphysical conception of the universe and upon the whole mental development, and that precisely because they not only occurred sporadically, but, as we shall soon see, attacked the masses in the form of epidemics, and so became of the highest significance and importance for the life of society as a whole.

Religious enthusiasm and proneness to the mystic and the occult formed, even in the highest antiquity, an important factor of those degenerate and hysterical individuals who entertained the delusion that they were in communication with good or with bad spirits, and who by that channel influenced the masses not a little. A great number of the priestesses who delivered oracular responses to the Greeks "with strong quaking of their body" were psychopathic subjects undergoing the hysterical convulsions well known to us to-day. Hence epilepsy, which in those days was not discriminated from hysterical cramps, came to be called the morbus sacer, or sacred disease. Plutarch, in his description of the Pythian priestess, delineates the typical image of a hysterical subject who, in ecstatic convulsion, stammered unintelligible words, into which the priests injected some sense. But hysteria, with its inclination to religious enthusiasm, was not limited to separate persons. On the contrary, we meet with it among all peoples and in all periods of history; and among all peoples we meet with it in the form of epidemics of various kinds. But never did this disease find a better or more fertile soil in which to thrive than in the middle ages of northern Europe, marked as they were by ignorance and superstition; and, accordingly, we find that epidemics of hysteria then assumed dimensions surpassing those of any similar outbursts in other centuries. A great many fine books have been written about the individual and epidemic crazes of those ages. The French have made particularly careful researches into the matter.

Calmeil describes a great number of hysterical epidemics of different forms. One of the principal eruptions in Germany was demonomania, or Teufelswahn. "In the year 1549," says Calmeil, "a delusion called Vaudoisie prevailed in Artois, that the devils carried many secretly in the night to the assemblies, where compacts were made with Satan and where carnal intercourse took place. Without knowing how, the participants of the nocturnal meetings found themselves next morning back in their dwellings."

A manifestation equally widespread in Germany was anthro-